Oppose Betsy DeVos Protest, Washington, DC,” Ted Eytan

May 4, 2020, Inside Higher Ed

The most vulnerable college students and those who are out of school, out of a job, and have tuition loans to pay are out of luck yet again.

For those paying federal student loans, the CARES Act offers several benefits to help them get through the next few months. Interest won’t accumulate on certain federal student loans between March 13th and September 30th. Those with those federal student loans don’t have to make payments during that period, either, and if they were in default and their pay was being garnished, that was to stop immediately.

The federal process was smooth up to a point; all the federal family education loans (FFEL) were automatically put into forbearance, and the interest was zeroed on the accounts. Somehow, though, according to a class action suit filed last week, the wage garnishment has not stopped.

In a letter to DeVos, Sen. Cory A. Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), along with 40 others, stated that Congress worked to assist those in student loan default, to pause the garnishing of their pay, and that the Department of Education is blatantly disregarding those new protections. The letter demands that Education halt this illegal garnishment and provide a timeline when those borrowers will get a refund for the monies taken from March 13th until now.

“Right now, low-wage workers hit hardest by the economic impact of the pandemic need their paychecks to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads,” Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says. “By continuing to use its harsh collection tools during this public health and economic crisis, the Department of Education is placing the health, safety, and well-being of vulnerable student loan borrowers in peril.”

For those who are currently college students, the initial tranche of funding to help those students affected by COVID-19 and their schools, $6.8 billion of the $31 billion, has been released. Only $6 million has been actually received by schools, though, according to the Department of Education, and just over a quarter of the 5,000 eligible institutions have provided the paperwork for their students. The blame for this has been shuttled back and forth, with colleges pointing to a lack of guidance on disbursing the money to students, while the Department of Education puts the onus on the schools. Spokesperson Angela Morabito says, “It’s tragic that at a time when students are struggling to make ends meet, too many highly capable and intelligent leaders of higher ed institutions are dragging their feet and claiming it’s because there’s some lack of clarity in the law.”

The CARES Act doesn’t specify how colleges should give funds out to students, only that it had to be at least 40 percent of the grant to each school and the students should get it to cover living expenses such as food and rent. Colleges are scrambling to put a process in place. Meanwhile, the Department of Education has determined that not all students in US colleges that need help during this crisis are eligible. Students must have a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on file; if they are one of the 7.5 million students who haven’t filed one, they may be able to get funds using other documents, such as Social Security cards and Selective Service registration.

A department spokesperson identified two sections of the stimulus law to justify their decision:

Section 18004(a)(1), instructs the department to divvy up three-fourths of $12 billion in the bill for higher education institutions based on their number of low-income Pell Grant students. The other, Section 18004(b), tells the department to distribute the stimulus aid to colleges and students in the same way it now distributes student aid.

It seems there is a quarter of the funding that does not have to be directed to those who qualify for Pell grants.

Lastly, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has determined that only college students who are US citizens can receive dollars from the CARES Act. The approximately $500 or so that some of their classmates may get to help with the loss of part-time jobs and suddenly having to leave their dormitories will not be given to international students or Dreamers—that is, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students.

Democrats sent DeVos a letter on Friday disputing the department’s requirements for the college students, which eliminate assistance for many students, including DACA students, students with former drug convictions, and students who attended classes exclusively online prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

“The extreme eligibility restrictions,” said the letter, “which were added by the Department without any directive from Congress and without any statutory basis, represent an unconscionable response to the virus, which does not discriminate against which students are impacted by it.”

We are deeply disappointed with your unauthorized decision to restrict eligibility for emergency financial aid to students during this difficult time for our country and in violation of Congressional intent. Accordingly, we urge you to reverse your decision to limit students’ access to emergency financial aid and block students from using funds for institutional charges. During this national emergency, it is essential to provide resources that meet the diverse needs of all our students and institutions of higher education.

It appears Republicans are saying that since the CARES Act does not explicitly say DACA students should get funding, then they shouldn’t. Congressional Democrats counter that the Act does not link a student’s financial aid to eligibility for emergency funds.

Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director for United We Dream, which advocates for people in the DACA, program, said in a statement that it wasn’t necessary to make the law clearer. “The bill, as it was written, would have provided aid to all students, regardless of immigration status. Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education made a wholly unnecessary and callous decision unilaterally. She is the sole reason undocumented students are left out of this much needed aid.”

It would behoove the department to remember that there are almost 29,000 registered DACA recipients working in health care. Nurses and technicians, former college students, now saving lives in a pandemic.—Marian Conway